Road-Tripping Around Portugal

Itinerary:

Dates: May 18-29, 2017

Our Odyssey:

An early morning flight back east across the Atlantic brought us into Lisbon around 11am that Thursday. After a cumbersome process, we procured our rental car and set out towards Sintra, Portugal’s palace playground about an hour outside of Lisbon.

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Town of Sintra

This is one of Portugal’s most heavily touristed areas, for good reason. Aside from the three castles we visited, there are mansions, monasteries ruins and gardens to keep you busy for days. A quick note on logistics – parking is difficult in Sintra. The city is old and its planning did not have car traffic in mind. People generally recommend coming via train or bus if visiting Sintra as a day trip from Lisbon. We were in our rental car of course as we were starting our road trip, but with a bit of research (thanks to our trusted Rick Steves guide) we were able to find easy parking just below town where we could take stairs up to the center of it all.

From there, we hopped on a tuk-tuk (not something I expected to see in Europe) for only a euro more than the price of waiting for the public bus to take us up a steep road to the Moorish Castle.

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View of the Moorish Castle Walls

This place, that changed hands so many times throughout history, now welcomes visitors from all over the world and of all ages. Looking around the castle grounds today, it genuinely looks like a large playground for adults and children alike. People are climbing towers, walking along castle walls, ducking into little nooks and picnicking on centuries-old ledges while taking in the stunning views surrounding the fortress. From various points in the castle towers, we could see the Pena Palace and the central area of Sintra, as well as many old aristocratic homes in the hillside. In many ways, this spot reminded me of Ehrenburg Castle ruins in Austria, though much more touristy given its location.

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Exploring the castle

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Exploring the castle

We ended our visit at the Moorish Castle with a picnic of our leftovers from dinner the night before sitting up on the castle wall. It was another one of those times where I realized that if I were to go back and tell my childhood self that in 25 years she’d be sitting on a castle wall in Europe having lunch with a man she’s wildly in love with, childhood me would have thought that was ridiculous. Thinking about it now as I type this, it kind of is.

Leaving the Moorish Castle, we walked uphill about 5 minutes to the Pena Palace. This palace is a real-life Magic Kingdom Disney Castle of Portugal – and so perhaps unsurprisingly it often gets compared to the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany for its over-the-top flourishes. The Pena Palace is pure whimsy from the first glance, with bright colors, dramatic shapes, and a splash of Moorish design beckoning your eyes to look at everything all at once.

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Pena Palace

After this palace and a brief meander through the garden, we caught another tuk-tuk back down to the town center and the National Palace, our last stop for the day. After the color overload of Pena Palace, the National Palace was a bit underwhelming. That said, I found some of the stories within far more interesting. The king who lived here was passive aggressive in a most delightful way. For example, when King John I’s wife caught him kissing a lady-in-waiting, rumors went flying. In response, he had the ceiling of one room painted in magpies (a symbol of gossip) and the words “Por bem” – for good. And then there’s the Stag Room – which honors noble families of Portugal with their family crests flanking the ceilings around the room. There is one blank space, however, representing a family that had schemed a revolt. The words encircling the room, “Honoring all the noble families who’ve been loyal to the king,” drive the point home.

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Twin chimneys of the National Palace

After our Sintra day trip we made our way to Évora, a small town with a Roman past in Portugal’s hot, dry center, famous for its cork and olive trees. Since we were arriving in the evening and we had already had a packed day, we left the sightseeing for the next day and made dinner our priority for the night. We ended up at a place recommended in our Rick Steves guidebook called Adega do Alentejano. The restaurant makes their own wine and so the feel inside is much like a cellar. It’s dim, homey and the specials are scrawled on the wall. We were both excited for our first truly traditional Portuguese meal. We ordered a carafe of the house wine, kept the appetizers of meats, cheeses and olives that they bring to the table (whether you order them or not), and each got a different meal. Tim ordered what was basically a cilantro soup (there was also fish and bread, but it was very cilantro-heavy and thus not for me). I, on the other hand, got the most decadently rich buttery golden codfish meal. I still think about that meal.

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Our amazing meal in Evora

Slightly tipsy and quite sleepy, we made our way back to the Airbnb we rented for the night.

The next morning we set out on a self-guided walking tour of the town, exploring the Roman ruins- most notably the temple of Diana which stands proud in the historical city center and the ancient baths that have been uncovered inside one of the public buildings.

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Temple of Diana

The most exciting, and mysterious, part of the area was yet to come, as we left the town center and headed out in our car to find some relatively unknown monolithic sites from around 4000 BC (that’s quite old). We started at the Great Dolman of Zambujeiro. A dolman, we learned, as a burial tomb. This one sits like a small man-made cave in an empty sprawl of land down a dirt road. There is hardly a parking lot or any signs – quite a contrast with the more-famous Stonehenge not too far outside of London. We then stopped by the small and lonely Menir dos Alemendres (5500 BC). A menhir is a standing stone and this one is thought to have some astrological significance, especially in relation to the next site we visited – the Alemendres Cromlech. Also dating from 5500 BC, this grouping of stones is 2000 years older than Stonehenge. TWO THOUSAND. The stones are arranged to reflect a celestial calendar, and like the first spot we visited, is unguarded – no entrance fees, scant signage, and totally open to explore.

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Megalthic structures from 5500 BC

Leaving the ruins behind, we then made our way to the charming town of Obidos – which is about as picture perfect as a medieval town can get, complete with a city wall, cobbled lanes, a castle and an abundance of flowers. We spent the day meandering the streets leading up to the castle. After stopping for lunch and a beer at one of the cafés, we popped into various shops. While Tim and I do not typically make purchases, I bought a wool shawl and Tim bought a metal rooster (yep, you read that right).

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Charming Obidos

That afternoon we made our way to Nazaré, a beach town on Portugal’s west coast. The beach itself is large and sandy, but otherwise not particularly unique. The town, however, is very fun. After checking into our Airbnb, we headed out to explore, starting by taking the funicular up to  Sitio, a neighborhood up on a hill overlooking the city and ocean below.

Sitio is very different from Nazaré proper. Nazaré is a grid structure. Sitio is twisted, cobbled alleys. Nazaré is full of restaurants, bars and touristy shops. Sitio is full of churches, street markets and locals. Sitio is the old soul to Nazaré’s festive spirit.

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View of Nazare from Sitio

As the time neared when the funicular was going to stop running for the evening, we made our way back to the station to head down to the city for dinner and a night out.

We ended up at another Rick Steves recommendation – right next to another couple with a well-loved copy of Rick Steves’ Portugal guidebook. We had a good conversation with them about our shared experiences traveling around the country (and a little bit of politics) while indulging in a decadent (but surprisingly inexpensive) seafood meal and a bottle of Portugal’s special “vinho verde” (literally, green wine, but translates closer to “young wine”). Vinho verde is not quite sparkling but does have a fizz to it. After dinner we headed out to a few bars, where we enjoyed some beers and cocktails along the boardwalk, just feet from the sand.

The next day, we drove northwards towards the college town of Coimbre, with a few stops along the way. The first was to Alcobaca monastery, which was hands down our favorite in all of Portugal. This monastery is massive, and the passageways, tucked-away staircases, and hidden rooms leading to more hidden rooms make it an explorer’s playground. Hardly anything is off-limits – in the refectory we could even climb the stairs to the pulpit, from which the 12th century monks would read the Bible while other monks ate.

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Alcobaca Monastery

Alcobaca even has a love story of Game of Thrones proportions. Dom Pedro (King Peter I, 1320-1367) is buried in this tomb, with his lover Dona Ines de Castro in a tomb across the aisle of the church. Pedro had been married to Ines’ cousin, but secretly in love with Ines. When his wife died, he and Ines married in secret. Ines, and they had four kids. Pedro’s father was concerned these children would threaten the right to the throne of his first born grandchildren, so he had Ines killed. Pedro in response organized a massive uprising, and, as the legend goes, had Ines’ body exhumed, dressed in a bridal grown, placed on a throne, and then had the murderers kneel and kiss her rotting hand. Pedro then executed the two murderers personally, ripped out their hearts, and ate them (with a glass of vinho verde). Whoa.

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Cloisters of Alcobaca

After touring the monastery we visited Pastelaria Alcoa, which is the home of the pastel de nata that won best in Portugal in 2014. It was pretty yummy, but to be honest I liked all the ones I ate in Portugal!

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Always yummy

We then went to Batalha and the fancy late Gothic style Monastery of Santa Maria (built from 1388-1533). The monastery feels very heavy inside – large and weighty. Though there is one unique section that is actually quite the opposite, because it has no ceiling at all. Known as the “unfinished chapels”, the chapel was intended to house royal tombs. The king who commissioned it, however, died young of the plague, leaving his 6-year-old son as the new king. The building efforts fell to wayside and the space remains open to this day.

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Batalha

Our last stop en route to Coimbra was to the religious pilgrimage site of Fatima. In 1917, 3 children claimed they saw the Virgin Mary appear to them by the tree in the right hand side of the photo. Shortly after, a large cathedral was built, and in the 2000s, a new 9k seat auditorium was built to house the large number of pilgrims. Today. believers will drop to their knees at the new church and shuffle on their knees all the way to the tree (follow the white line in the plaza). We happened to arrive here shortly before a service let out of the new church. It was an interesting scene to witness as the crowds carrying framed pictures of the Virgin Mary marched out of the church. There had to have been thousands of people there, but even so, there was still plenty of empty space in the large concrete expanse between the cathedral and the chapel. I can’t even imagine the chaos and crowds during a major event.

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Fatima cathedral

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Pilgrims leaving the chapel

We then drove the rest of the way to Coimbra, home of the most prestigious and historic university in Portugal. After checking into our Airbnb, we started out to explore the city, which had a distinctly different feel from others we had been in. In many ways, it reminded me of Lyon, France, the city where I studied abroad. It was gritty, cultural, artistic and historical. We found a small hole in the wall bar where we had a few drinks before deciding we should probably go find some dinner. The restaurant our Airbnb host recommended was completely packed, so we turned to our Rick Steves guidebook (of course) and found another restaurant nearby.

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Coimbra

They were also completely packed, but said if we waited a few minutes they would have a table ready for us, and in the meantime, here are two glasses of complimentary house wine while you wait! This ended up being one of our top 5 meals of all time. We ordered more house wine, a savory meat and cheese plate, tomatoes with cottage cheese and honey, beef tenderloin, duck breast, and then lastly an amazing chocolate mousse. It was all simply divine and so very satisfying. I would go back to Coimbre just to return to this restaurant again.

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And this was just the apps

The next morning we explored the university, which is essentially the Oxford of Portugal. It was also graduation day, so it was very exciting to see all the enthused students and their families. We were able to go inside a few of the classrooms and hallways from the old courtyard, but the highlight for me was the stunning King John’s Library, considered one of Europe’s best Baroque libraries. It is home to 55,000 books from floor to ceiling. In order to keep out the humidity, people are only allowed in during set times in small groups. No photos are allowed in the library, but if you imagine the library the Beast gives Belle – you’re pretty close to the magic of this heaven of literature.

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In front of the library

That afternoon we had to head back to Lisbon, for one last night before flying out the next morning. We had a leisurely evening over a bottle of champagne and reminisces of our first trip together as husband and wife. A perfect conclusion to a wonderful trip, and a fitting start to the story of our marriage together.

 

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